This is a story of two tragedies. The first, the loss of 329 lives in June 1985, in the Air India `Kanishka' disaster, and the second, the gripping sense of frustration with the investigation and trial that the families of the victims have had to accept. With the concluding submissions beginning tomorrow, will it lead to a verdict that many think will be a mockery of the Canadian justice system, asks RABAB NAQVI.
FORWARD STUDIO, MUMBAI/THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
Was complicity or bureaucratic carelessness the problem in the `Kanishka' investigation?
NINETEEN years later, Padmini Turlapati still goes back to Ahakista in Ireland to be close to her son Deepak. (Ahakista village, in west Cork, Ireland, is the site of the Air India memorial). She sees her tears spilling into a bowl held by Deepak as she hears his voice: "To catch your tears, mom."
Deepak was among the 329 passengers who died when Air India AI Flight 182 exploded mid-air off the coast of Ireland and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean on June 23, 1985. Deepak's body and those of 196 other victims were never recovered.
Two men accused in the conspiracy to blow up the Toronto to Mumbai bound Boeing 747 "Emperor Kanishka", (via London and Delhi), Ripudaman Singh Malik 57, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, 54, were arrested on October 27, 2000, after investigations in India, Canada and Europe. Their trial began on April 28, 2003. On October 18, 2004, defence and the Crown will begin making concluding submissions which are expected to last till mid-December. Judgment is expected in early 2005.
The Air India disaster has left a deep impact on many lives. Prakash Bhardwaj lost his 20-year-old son Harish. Sushila Rauthan's husband and daughter perished. So did Lata Pada's husband and two daughters. Bal Gupta lost his wife Ramwati. Naseeb Kaur lost her son-in-law and two grandchildren. Another three male members of her family died of shock on hearing the news.
Life after Flt 182
Families of the victims have coped with their loss in different ways. Eisha Marjara, who lost her mother and sister, made an autobiographical film "Desperately Searching Helen" tying in her personal loss with larger issues of loss, identity, belonging, and the mother-daughter relationship. For Eisha, "The longing for both these women will never cease, and will forever remain unfulfilled and desperate."
The first reaction of Lata Pada when she got the news of the disaster was, "I wish I was with them." Lata took refuge in Bharatanatyam and developed a very successful career as an internationally-acclaimed artist combining classical Indian dance with contemporary forms of western dance. The wounds of family members of the victims, which had never really healed, was fraught with pain at the trial held recently at Vancouver, British Columbia.
Some sat through the proceedings quietly. Others yelled "Monster!" when they saw the defendants Malik and Bagri walk into the courtroom dressed in colourful traditional clothes instead of a prison outfit. Men sobbed when they saw photos of the gruesome scenes presented as evidence by the Crown and heard the grisly details of the plane going down.
The Irish and British naval rescuers, and the air traffic controller from Shannon airport in Limerick, Ireland, were so overwhelmed with emotion that they could not hold back their tears while testifying at the trial. Most chilling was seaman Daniel Brown's description of the bodies that were so badly soiled with oil, hydraulic fluid and blood that they slipped away from his hands as he tried to pull them into the boat.
The four suspects
Four men have been identified as being involved in the conspiracy: Malik, Bagri, Inderjeet Singh Reyat, and Talwinder Singh Paramar (who was shot dead in a police encounter in Punjab in 1992).
On February 10, 2003, in a dramatic turn of events, Reyat pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter and a charge of aiding in the construction of a bomb without knowing where or how it will be used. All other charges against Reyat were stayed and he was sentenced to five years in jail.
The light sentence given to Reyat outraged relatives of the victims.
Outrage and frustration
The memorial at Ahakista.
"I have lost faith in the Canadian justice system," said Venu Thampi of Thornhill, Ontario.
"A person kills 329 people and he gets five years? That's disgusting," said Rauthan of Nepean, Ontario,
Wesley Wark, a security expert at the University of Toronto, thinks that the sentence, "might have made perfect sense in the very limited context of a criminal proceeding, but it makes almost no sense in the context of a global war on terror."
The judge ruled that Reyat had spent 10 years in jail in Britain for his role in the blast at Tokyo's Narita airport that killed two baggage handlers. Plus the time he has already spent in jail in Canada added up to 25 years, which is the maximum punishment for manslaughter.
Relatives are now anxiously waiting for justice in the case of Malik and Bagri. For some, justice might come too late. Some relatives of the victims have died, while others have moved on. Jagat Paliwal lost his 15-year-old nephew. Paliwal's brother died in 1988, waiting for justice. Paliwal himself is more interested in why it happened, and how to prevent something like this happening in the future.
Investigations lagged because the Indian government thought it was Canada's problem and the Canadian government thought that it was India's responsibility. Laying of the charges was also delayed because of the rivalry between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) similar to India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) similar to India's Research Analysis Wing (RAW). Finally, the RCMP got the go ahead.
Only circumstantial evidence
At a cost of over $100 million with 115 witnesses and 192 days in court, both the defence lawyers and the prosecutors have expressed satisfaction with the way the trial has gone. But no one wants to predict the outcome. The Crown's case is based on circumstantial evidence. No physical evidence has linked the defendants to the bombing.
Chief Justice Ian Bruce Josephson, of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, has the unenviable task of passing a judgment, without a jury, in this unprecedented case of international terrorism. Mark Jette, chairman of the Canadian Bar Association's criminal justice section, has pointed out that Chief Justice Josephson has to come up with a verdict that can stand the test of time and that does not have any legal loopholes. For in case of a conviction and subsequent appeal, the case can go on for a very long time.
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RIPUDAMAN SINGH MALIK and Ajaib Singh Bagri were charged with conspiracy and murder in twin bombings. Their targets?... . At 6.19 a.m. on June 22, 1985, an explosion ripped through Tokyo's Narita airport killing two baggage handlers. The object, a suitcase, that exploded, was unloaded from Canadian Airlines Flight 003. Passengers on this flight, which had been delayed, were expected to connect with the intended target Air India AI Flight 301 enroute to Bombay. Fifty-four minutes later, Air India Flight 182 disappeared over the Atlantic near Ireland.
Besides being the worst case of mass murder in Canada, the bombing of Flight 182 is also the longest, the most expensive and the most complex case in Canadian legal history. It has cost over $100-million and the current cost, by one estimate, is $1-million a month. Reyat who was in England was also charged in this case. The cost of his extradition in 2001 was $6-million. A special high security courtroom at the cost of $8-million was built in British Columbia for the trial.
Unusual happenings, rivalry
Rescue teams described the crash scene as "horrific".
There are some unsolved mysteries and unusual happenings in this case. Six people were allegedly involved in the conspiracy, but only four were identified. Jeanne Bakermans, a former Canadian Pacific Airlines employee, testified that she checked in a bag for a passenger on the Air India flight out of Toronto even though the man did not have a confirmed reservation. The bag could not be scanned before being loaded on the plane because the scanner that day was not working. The CSIS had a mole spying on people allegedly plotting the Air India bombings. Yet it took the Canadian Government 16 years to charge and arrest the accused. And until Reyat's bargain plea, there was no base at all for arguing that Flight 182 was brought down by a bomb
Regarding the delay in laying charges, there have been the embarrassing disclosures that the CSIS had evidence concerning the conspiracy which was destroyed by some of their officials. The rivalry between the RCMP and the CSIS was so great that CSIS officials destroyed the documents and tape recordings with vital information rather than hand it over to the RCMP.
The bungling by the CSIS was a setback for the prosecution. Bagri's lawyers have argued that the destroying of the tape recordings of the intercepted conversations between the prime suspects has jeopardised their client's chance of a fair trial. Chief Justice Ian Bruce Josephson of the British Columbia Supreme Court has ruled that destruction of the tape recordings by the CSIS has violated Bagri's constitutional right to a fair trial.
Ripudaman Singh Malik,Ajaib Singh Bagri
There are other bizarre incidents. In a sudden turn of events, Malik's family refused to pay his defence lawyers. His wife pleaded that she could not use family money to fund his defence, since she needed the money for the future. She made this plea in spite of the fact that according to the financial statement for 2001, Malik's net worth was $11.6 million and his three sons were spending money lavishly. So as not to delay the proceedings, the Attorney General of British Columbia agreed to fund 50 per cent of Malik's legal cost from September 19, 2003, on condition that Malik reduced the number of lawyers on his defence team to four and provided security for the return of the loan.
Moreover, testimonies of witnesses have been contradictory. Witnesses for both the prosecution and defence both have had credibility problems. They have made contradictory statements; they have given conflicting versions of private conversations and some have gone back on their words. It has been said that the most common witness response has been, "I don't remember in this trial".
A woman witness, who had earlier made statements to the CSIS and the RCMP implicating Bagri in the bombings, claimed not to remember giving the information when testifying in court.
A former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant and a boyhood friend of Bagri, John (whose real identity cannot be disclosed) testified that weeks after the Air India flight went down, Bagri confessed to his role in the bombings. John, when testifying in court, admitted to having killed his brother in a family feud and subsequently lying to U.S. immigration authorities. The RCMP paid John $3,00,000 (U.S.) for testifying against Bagri. Kamal Jit, a New York City cabdriver, brought in by the defence to refute John's testimony about Bagri's involvement in the bombings, contradicted himself several times while testifying.
Jit also lied about a meeting he had with Bagri's lawyer. Another of Bagri's witness, Gurmit Singh, who claimed to have been John's roommate in 1985, could not hold out under cross-examination.
Malik's witnesses had credibility problems of their own. Raminder Singh Mindy Bhandher, admitted to being a gangster. Daljit Singh Sandhu and Satwant Singh Sandhu were identified as alleged conspirators in the bombing plot. Satwant Sandhu admitted to having made death threats to a reporter of the daily newspaper, the Vancouver Sun, and lying to the police on an earlier occasion.
The prosecution's star witness against Malik, a 40-year-old woman, who claimed to have been in love with Malik, testified that on two occasions, in 1996 and 1997, Malik confessed to her about his involvement in the plot to bomb the Air India flights. The defence portrayed her as a disgruntled employee who had reasons to lie. Once employed in a school run by Malik she was fired from her job. She filed a human-rights lawsuit for wrongful dismissal and complained to the police about other wrong doings by Malik. She accused him of smuggling people, welfare fraud, unemployment income scams and misuse of government grants.
The Crown case against Bagri and Malik relies on circumstantial evidence. No forensic evidence connects Bagri and Malik to the crime. No recorded evidence of their involvement in the bombings has been found. Neither Bagri nor Malik have taken the witness stand in their own defence.
Rabab Naqvi is a freelance writer based in Montreal, Canada.
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